Online identity: Where collaboration and innovation get stuck

Innovation and collaboration go together, but to work together across platforms we need a user-controlled, independent identity scheme

Artificial intelligence and digital identity

Before I was hired by Hypothesis, a nonprofit that's building a Web discussion platform, the team used Trello for project management. Then it switched to HuBoard, one of a number of tools that layer project management features on top of GitHub.

When I joined three weeks ago, however, nobody at Hypothesis was happy with HuBoard, and there was nostalgia for Trello. So that's what I'm using now to manage the development of our product.

The crux of the issue for our team is that a wrapper around GitHub won't do the trick. We need to operate at a higher level of abstraction. We're an open source project, and GitHub is at the core of what we do. But we're now expanding from a small team of engineers to a larger team that includes three new program managers.

While it's true that GitHub has become more accessible to non-programmers than it once was, these folks won't be comfortable making pull requests anytime soon. They're fine with Trello, though. As a team, we need to collaborate on more than just engineering issues: Design, marketing, user support, events, and fundraising (remember, we're a non-profit) are all activities that must connect to the pulse of our GitHub repo but require a different tool. So far, Trello is meeting that need quite well.

Why? It's a user innovation toolkit. It provides an open-ended set of simple building blocks that people can easily combine to satisfy personal and group needs. You can use it to simulate a Kanban-style exercise on a whiteboard with post-it notes that move from column to column. You can use it in many other ways, too. Such open-endedness can be daunting when, as in the case of Git and GitHub, the building blocks themselves are inherently complex. But Trello's building blocks -- lists, cards -- are simple and general enough for anyone to tinker with.

So what's not to like about Trello for product management? For me, it's always about reuse and integration. It irks me that I can't maintain a list in one board and transclude it into another, or share a link to an individual comment on a card, or use RSS feeds to wire Trello boards or lists into other services using connectors like IFTTT and Zapier. (Yes, I know there are third-party hacks that materialize RSS feeds for Trello, but a core integration enabler ought not be a third-party hack.)

I realize that complaining about missing RSS feeds makes me sound like a grumpy old fart. Which, to be clear, I am. My InfoWorld editor, Eric Knorr, has warned me that they'll have to sepia-tone my photo if I keep whining about the good old days. I could jazz up the pitch by wishing for OData feeds which are more modern -- based on Atom and AtomPub -- but that train never left the station. So let's move on. Here's a problem that we've yet to solve and that people might actually care about.

In Trello you can @mention a team member to draw their attention to a card. Of course members of our team don't only hang out on Trello. If I want to @mention our designer/developer Jake Hartnell, I have to stop and think. Is he 1) @jakehartnell1? 2) @jakehartnell? 3) @RawkStar77? The answers are: 1) yes if on Trello, 2) yes if on Twitter, 3) yes if on GitHub.

OK, this is a first-world problem. I get that. But really? It's 2015 and we've done no better than point-to-point OAuth? Here's how we tend to think about solving this problem: GitHub buys Trello, or Twitter buys Trello, or Facebook buys Trello, and we lash two identity schemes together to create a single master Franken-identity. Mission accomplished! Except it sucks for everybody who's left out.

Trello really is a user innovation toolkit. There are interesting and useful integrations to be made between GitHub and Trello, Twitter and Trello, Facebook and Trello ... the list goes on. None of these pairings ought to be privileged above the others, and none should depend on bespoke point-to-point integration.

An identity scheme that users control, independent of all these entities, is the key enabler. None of the incumbents want to make that happen. The IndieWeb folks do, but haven't yet found a way to inspire users. Here's hoping they will. The Web itself is, or anyway should be, the ultimate user innovation toolkit.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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